Review: ‘NOW” Premieres at Vail Dance Festival

Festival Artists in Thousandth Orange. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

The Vail Dance Festival (VDF) is an incubator of creation. A tiny town, sweeping views, fresh air, and a curated collection of talented artists; every ingredient for the natural formation of art. This artistic exploration comes to fruition each year in an evening of new works called NOW: Premieres. 

This year’s evening of premieres featured six new works, five of which were choreographed by women. A reprise of Michelle Dorrance, Lil Buck, and pianist Jason Moran’s pièce d’occasion, “Carolina Shout,” kicked things off with an overflow of energy and talent from these three seasoned artists. Dorrance and Buck consistently dance with their entire bodies, from feet to face. Their joy is contagious. 

Pam Tanowitz’s new work, “Once More With Feeling,” debuted next, featuring a mix of accomplished and burgeoning dancers from different companies. Though not my favorite piece on the program, the work certainly pushed some boundaries, creating a post-apocalyptic world in which the dancers navigated like living dolls, possessed by some otherworldly force. VDF Composer-in-Residence Caroline Shaw created music as the ballet unfolded, using samples of everything from Swan Lake to old radio broadcasts. New and different, to say the least.

Festival Artists in Once More With Feeling. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Festival Artists in Once More With Feeling. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Act I closed with Tiler Peck’s newest creation, “Thousandth Orange.” This easy-to-watch piece provided a welcome foil to the Tanowitz work. Showing off a much more classical arrangement by Caroline Shaw, this ballet featured beautiful music and beautiful people doing beautiful things. It was a medley of turns and lifts, partners catching each other at the last minute in a thrilling bout of musical risk-taking. Peck’s choreography highlighted the strength of the brilliant dancers in her cast, as the mix of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater dancers created a patchwork of intrciate shapes and patterns. 

First up after intermission, VDF Artist-in-Residence Lauren Lovette‘s new work, “If You’re Gonna Build a Body, Start With The Bones,” turned the evening on its head. Featuring live music on stage from indie artist Kate Davis, Alexander Foote, and Cameron MacIntosh, this piece kept surprising me. From the explosive start- NYCB Kennard Henson erupted out into space, practically jumping straight from the wings to center stage- “Bones” melted into quiet intimacy. NYCB soloist Unity Phelan shined in her tender vulnerability, as the dancers explored fear and relationships through the physical vocabulary of visionary choreographer Lauren Lovette. Lovette’s voice seems to be boundless in growth and versatility, and the ambitious partnership with musicians whose expansive composition flowed from purely percussive, to haunting flow, and finally surrendering rock was nothing short of astonishing. She speaks to a new generation of dreamers, and her brave conversation is received with open arms.

Unity Phelan and Kennard Henson in If You're Gonna Build a Body, Start With The Bones. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Unity Phelan and Kennard Henson in If You’re Gonna Build a Body, Start With The Bones. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Under the direction of Michelle Dorrance, the next piece, “When We Know,” included choreographic efforts from all of the performing artists. The marrying of many genres of dance can be tricky, but here Dorrance’s ability to deliver quality work is ever apparent. The piece effortlessly intertwines tap, ballet, Jookin, and contemporary dance void of gimmick or awkward transitions. The entire cast begins onstage together, apart from ABT’s Cory Stearns, who appears to be somehow “other.” Two tappers, Dario Natarelli and Naomi Funaki, seem to translate the dancers’ thoughts. A risky duet between Jookin dancer Phyouture and ABT’s Catherine Hurlin proves successful, and another short duet, between ABT’s James Whiteside and Cory Stearns might just be the most breathtaking thirty seconds of partnering I have ever seen. 

Festival Artists in When We Know. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Festival Artists in When We Know. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

The evening closed with an encore performance of Alonzo King’s new work, “The Personal Element.” There is so much happening on stage throughout, this ballet turns eyes into hummingbirds, as observers desperately flit from one gravity-defying promenade to the next, trying to take it all in. The dancers, a combination of LINES Ballet and NYCB, together make a feast of world class talent, forming what just might be one of the most perfect compilation casts throughout the entire festival. At times heavy, others uplifting, this piece is pure, sweeping beauty.